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The nuclear-free dilemma. Lack of clarity at Reykjavik on zero-level arms reductions dismays military, Congress, allies

Does the world need nuclear weapons? The question seems almost absurd. Yet, in the wake of the superpower meeting in Reykjavik, public debate is mounting in the United States and in Western Europe over this fundamental and controversial issue.

The NATO allies, the US Congress, the American military, and many Western arms experts voice profound concern that President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev even talked about reducing nuclear weapons to zero in ten years time and moving away from nuclear deterrence -- a strategy which has kept the global peace for 40 years.

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Other Western specialists say the two leaders at least opened up a healthy dialogue that will stimulate thinking about how to advance toward a nuclear-free world -- something people everywhere aspire to. Such a world may not be achievable in the foreseeable future, say experts, but the debate is salutary.

Even as the debate intensifies, confusion lingers over what precisely was agreed to in Iceland. Mr. Gorbachev says the President assented to doing away with all offensive strategic nuclear weapons by 1996. The White House contended that the two discussed this issue but that the President proposed a 50 percent reduction in long-range nuclear weapons over five years, followed by a five-year period in which ballistic missiles -- not all strategic nuclear weapons -- would be eliminated.

Not wishing to undermine Reagan's credibility with Moscow, however, US officials now say privately that he did in fact endorse the Soviet proposal to outlaw all strategic weapons in ten years, but that there was no time to work out a formal agreement.

Diplomatic and arms experts are appalled by the lack of clarity on the issue following Reykjavik. They suggest that the President was not well prepared for this kind of sweeping, abstract discussion with Gorbachev, especially without the benefit of US military advice.

The argument is not an esoteric one but gets to the heart of how drastic cuts in offensive forces would affect the strategic balance and how the US and the USSR view that balance. If ballistic missiles were totally banned, the United States would be left with a superior force in bombers and cruise missiles, both of which carry nuclear weapons. The Soviets would feel at a disadvantage.

But if all nuclear weapons, including ballistic missiles, were scrapped, the US and its allies would confront the superior conventional forces of the Soviet Union. To redress this balance would require an incalculable expenditure of funds and resources.

The Soviets have long preached nuclear disarmament as a propaganda tactic to try to prove they are not a military threat. But no one thinks they would eliminate their strategic weapons in the face of US military might and the growing nuclear capability of China and of other countries.

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In the view of some arms experts, the US-Soviet dispute over what was said in Iceland is overshadowing the real arms control issue -- the strategic defense initiative (SDI).

``There's nothing wrong in addressing the fundamentals of the nuclear dilemma, but this is misleading people,'' says James Rubin of the Arms Control Association, a private research and advocacy group. ``The problem is that at this stage in the relationship and the breakdown of arms control, it takes our eyes off what is possible.''

Leading arms experts have strongly criticized the President's proposal on zero ballistic missiles. James Schlesinger, secretary of defense in the Ford administration, calls the position ``little informed.'' Western security has rested on nuclear deterrence, he notes, and removal of that deterrence would put the NATO alliance at great risk.

``Are we to abandon the invulnerable part of our deterrent -- the submarine-based missile forces -- and return to the worries of the 1950s, when our retaliatory forces consisted of bombers on a small number of bases susceptible to surprise attack?'' he writes. ``For Western security, the nuclear deterrent continues to represent the ultimate reality.''

Mr. Schlesinger's view is shared by many in the US military. But an opposing opinion also is being aired. Stansfield Turner, a retired Navy admiral and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, terms the zero ballistic-missiles proposals ``the most significant move in nuclear arms control in a generation.''

Such a development, he argues in the Washington Post, would mean that by 1996 US and Soviet missile forces would not be accurate or reliable enough for a first strike. Only ballistic missiles can carry out such a strike, which is what each superpower fears most. The fact that Gorbachev even talked about eliminating ballistic missiles -- the strongest component of the Soviet strategic force -- suggests that the Soviets may be moving away from heavy reliance on their land-based ICBMs toward a strong strategic ``triad'' says Mr. Turner.

As for allied concerns, Turner says the nuclear defense the Europeans think they are receiving is a ``mirage'' because no US president would risk the existence of the US to defend Europe from a conventional assault.

Still, other analysts argue that, however unrealistic nuclear disarmament now appears, Reagan and Gorbachev opened up the possibility of a different kind of dialogue that in the long run will serve humanity well.

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